Rosa Jimenez Was Exonerated of a Crime That Did Not Occur: Others Are Still Fighting

Rosa Jimenez in downtown Austin, Texas, on March 4, 2021. Photograph Source: The Innocence Project

This story was originally published by The Appeal.

Rosa Jimenez is one of more than 1,300 people who have been exonerated of crimes that never occurred. Countless others remain incarcerated, despite overwhelming evidence of their innocence.

On Monday, a Texas judge dismissed all charges against Rosa Jimenez, a mother of two who was wrongly convicted of killing a child in her care more than two decades ago.

In January 2003, when Jimenez was 20 years old and seven months pregnant, she was babysitting a 21-month-old boy while watching her one-year-old daughter. The boy began to have trouble breathing, and she went to a neighbor’s for help, Jimenez would later tell authorities. Paramedics arrived and dislodged a wad of paper towels from the child’s airways. Police immediately assumed Jimenez had harmed the child, who would die about three months later. Even though Jimenez spoke little English at the time, an officer who could barely speak Spanish interrogated her for over five hours.

Jimenez maintained her innocence. She was released, only to be arrested the same night. As Jimenez awaited trial behind bars, she gave birth in shackles.

The Travis County District Attorney’s office insisted that Jimenez had killed the boy. Their case against her rested entirely on the faulty assumption that a child of that age could not ingest that amount of paper towels on their own. “There is no way that [he] put this in his mouth like—all by himself,” testified Dr. Patricia Aldridge (then Oehring), one of the state’s four medical experts.

In 2005, Jimenez was convicted and sentenced to 75 years for murder and 99 years for injury to a child.

After she was convicted, Jimenez’s case slowly snaked through the appeals courts. It was investigated by journalists, decried by medical experts, and even condemned by judges. Yet, like so many others who are wrongly convicted, Jimenez remained in prison.

Then in 2021, the Travis County District Attorney’s office—under the leadership of then-newly elected DA José Garza, a former public defender—requested Jimenez’s release, stating that she is “likely innocent.” After more than 15 years of incarceration, Jimenez was released on bond, pending a decision by the appeals court on how to proceed with her case. (Jimenez’s legal team included attorneys from the Innocence Project, where this author worked from 2007 to 2015.)

In May, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals overturned Jimenez’s conviction. Garza’s office then moved to dismiss all charges against Jimenez, declaring in their motion to the court that she is “actually innocent.”

The legal system has finally accepted what Jimenez has maintained all along: She was not responsible for the boy’s death. But while Jimenez has been exonerated, she’s still fighting for her life. During her incarceration, she was diagnosed with kidney disease and now needs a kidney transplant.

Jimenez is one of more than 1,300 people who have been exonerated of crimes that never occurred. Countless others remain incarcerated, despite overwhelming evidence of their innocence.

Over the past few years, The Appeal has investigated the cases of several people convicted of crimes that they and experts say did not occur. All are still fighting for exoneration and remain incarcerated. Here are the latest updates on their legal battles:

Michelle Heale, New Jersey

On April 17, 2015, Michelle Heale was convicted of aggravated manslaughter and subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. The prosecution claimed she had shaken to death a 14-month-old in her care. Heale has always maintained that the boy’s body suddenly collapsed while she was feeding him. She called 911 and told the operator, “His whole body is lifeless.”

A paramedic arrived and took the child to the hospital. The emergency room doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia and found evidence of a possible bacterial infection. He was airlifted to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he would die a few days later. Doctors there quickly concluded that the child had been shaken. Police zeroed in on Heale.

At the time Heale was convicted, her twins were six years old. They’re now teenagers.

“Physically being away from my children and husband is the hardest part of being incarcerated,” Heale wrote to The Appeal last year. “Nothing can replace being home and involved with them on a day to day basis.”

The latest: Questions about the validity of Shaken Baby Syndrome, or SBS, have intensified since Heale’s conviction. Last year, in a separate case, Superior Court of New Jersey Judge Pedro J. Jimenez, Jr. ruled that prosecutors could not introduce evidence of SBS, a diagnosis he said was “akin to ‘junk science.’”

After reading The Appeal’s investigation into Heale’s conviction, law professor Colin Miller, with the assistance of law student Jasmine Caruthers, began looking into her case. Miller submitted an application on Heale’s behalf to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Conviction Review Unit, asking that they “correct an injustice and set Michelle Heale free.”

The Attorney General’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the status of Heale’s application.

Heale remains incarcerated.

The Appeal is a nonprofit newsroom that exposes how the U.S. criminal legal system fails to keep people safe and perpetuates harm.